Council abandons rents task force

Council abandons rents task force

Michele Ellson
Alameda City Council

Members of the City Council voted Tuesday to abandon plans to create a city-sponsored rents task force, opting instead to allow a local attorney to lead a community-based process to explore concerns about rising rents.

The council voted 3-2 to move forward with the community based process; the community group is to report its findings on December 2. Council members didn’t make any decisions about when – or if – they would move forward with an official task force in the future.

The task force proposal was the result of growing concerns over evictions and rising rents in Alameda. More than half of Alameda’s residents are renters.

Councilman Stewart Chen, who spearheaded the proposal for the community-based process in what may have been the most forceful advocacy he has offered in two years on the council, said it would be more effective than a government-sponsored group because it won’t be bogged down by public notice and other requirements a city task force could have to comply with.

“Mr. Cambra is willing to work with the community to get it done, make some resolution, (and) get it back to the council. If we want to move expeditiously, it has to be outside this government constraint,” Chen said, adding that he didn’t think the task force city staff proposed was inclusive enough.

Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilman Tony Daysog – who voted against moving forward with a community process – said they felt a city-sponsored group would be more legitimate and productive and would signal the seriousness of the city’s interest in addressing concerns over evictions and rising rents.

“I think the danger of us empowering you to move forward … is that it sends a question of what is the legitimacy of the task force,” Daysog told Cambra.

Mayor Marie Gilmore, who cast the tie-breaking vote to move forward with the community process, said that while she shared Ashcraft and Daysog’s concerns, she wasn’t convinced people would see the city’s task force as a legitimate avenue for exploring eviction and rent concerns.

Leaders of the housing group Renewed Hope, which had initially supported the task force, later questioned whether the one proposed by city staff included enough renter advocates. And they expressed concerns about whether they had done effective enough outreach to truly represent local renters.

“It could be viewed by tenants and tenant groups as a safer environment than a formal, established city board or commission,” said Councilwoman Lena Tam, who moved to proceed with the community process.

Members of Renewed Hope originally asked city leaders to consider rent controls as part of the city’s creation of a new housing blueprint for Alameda’s general plan, but later supported the idea of creating a task force to determine the nature and impacts of rent increases in Alameda in the face of massive resistance from the local real estate community.

The City Council tasked city staffers with presenting recommendations for the structure, membership and charge of the proposed task force; their recommendation, considered and rejected Tuesday, would have set up a task force that included representatives of Renewed Hope and the local Realtors association and chamber of commerce, along with a regional rental housing group and members of the Planning Board, Social Service Human Relations Board and Rent Review Advisory Committee.

The committee reviews rent disputes between tenants and landlords and makes recommendations. Its findings are not legally binding on either party.

Cambra – an attorney and mediator who has served on a laundry list of local boards and who ran for City Council in 2012 – proposed a community group with a list of stakeholders that includes Renewed Hope and staffers from Alameda’s three major rental housing management companies, landlords and members of the city’s Rent Review Advisory Committee. Discussion topics and additional stakeholders would be determined at the group’s initial meeting.

Cambra proposed and spearheaded a similar process last year to discuss the fate of Historic Alameda High School, with the goal of finding a shared solution. The group never made an official recommendation, though members said they would like to see the buildings saved and returned to school use.

Renters who attended Tuesday’s meeting urged the council to move quickly toward a fix for rising rents and evictions.

“I hope the council will take action to form the task force,” said Rasheed Shabazz, who talked about the trauma caused by evictions from the Buena Vista Apartments – now Summer Home – two decades ago. “To those people who are listening at home, tenants: Organize, organize, organize.”

During the discussion, one man who identified himself as a disabled renter sprang from his seat began shouting at council members that they needed to “wake up” to evictions and other issues faced by renters, prompting Gilmore to stop the meeting briefly.

But the sole landlord who appeared before the council, Farhad Matin, said he was concerned the task force’s goal was to push the city toward rent control, which he said would restrict the availability of rental housing in Alameda and provide landlords a disincentive for maintaining their property, and would impact owners’ ability to refinance debt on their properties. And landlords have questioned whether it’s fair to impose restrictions on the returns they may realize from their investment in rental property – returns they say are limited by the cyclical nature of the rental market.

“Economists agree, (rent control laws) are destructive,” said Matin, who said he’s anticipating a “correction” of rental prices and said he’s already unable to get the rents he was getting six months ago.

One thing everyone seems to agree on: Rents are rising. Two-thirds of the renters who participated in a recent Renewed Hope survey said their rents had risen over the last year, and 15 percent said they were handed increases of more than 10 percent – the ceiling typically accepted by the local rent commission.

But opinions on how – or whether – to address the issue vary sharply.

Rent control laws have been used as a tool to protect lower-income renters since the 1940s, though many have questioned their efficacy. Proponents say they protect renters from rate spikes and unjust evictions and help to maintain a diverse community. But opponents argue they are a blunt force instrument that provides below-market rent to rich and poor alike while limiting available rental opportunities for everyone else.

Cambridge, Massachusetts had rent controls in place from 1970 until 1995, when opponents were successful in passing a state law that banned them. Economists who studied the aftermath of the abolishment of rent control in the Boston suburb found that getting rid of it added $1.8 billion to the property values and that investments in local properties doubled on an annual basis between 1994, the year the proposition ending rent control passed, and 2004. But they also determined that rents increased “steeply” after controls were abolished and that residential turnover “rose sharply,” particularly in the buildings once subject to the controls.

New York’s rent controls – which date back to the 1940s and can be passed down to family members – have come under fire with the discovery that some of the state’s leaders, including former Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charlie Rangel, enjoy rent controlled apartments in some of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. But advocates have countered that the laws protect more needy people than wealthy ones.

California’s Costa-Hawkins Act prohibits rent controls for single-family housing and anything else built after 1995. But the majority of Alameda’s rental properties are either too old or too large to qualify for those exemptions, U.S. Census data show.

Still, even cities with rent controls – including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland – are struggling with supply and affordability issues. Los Angeles was recently ranked the most unaffordable city in America, while state legislators are seeking to tighten the Ellis Act – which allows landlords to evict tenants if they choose to “get out of the rental business” – in order to address a fresh wave of evictions in San Francisco.

In Oakland, some tenants are seeing rents skyrocket beyond what they can pay as the result of a rule permitting landlords to charge them for renovations and upgrades.

But efforts to increase the supply of below-market rental housing – the solution advocated by local opponents of rent control – may also be falling far short of demand, particularly here in Alameda, where Measure A long prohibited the construction of apartments and other multifamily housing and the more recent loss of redevelopment bond funds has, according to some city leaders, hampered Alameda’s ability to finance affordable housing here.

City leaders have worked over the past several years to boost Alameda’s supply of affordable housing by enacting policies that require homebuilders to include it in their developments and allowing them to build apartments and other multifamily housing under certain circumstances.

Over the past several years, the city added 62 studio apartments for lower-income renters when it renovated the old Islander motel, and another 16 when it build Jack Capon Villa for developmentally disabled residents; the construction of Shinsei Gardens added another 39 apartments. And the new development rules enacted by city leaders have put dozens of new homes in the pipeline at Alameda Landing and Marina Shores.

But the response to at least one of those developments illustrates that what Alameda has to offer lower-income renters may not be enough. The 52-unit Breakers at Bayport complex – a below-market apartment complex built as the result of a lawsuit settlement over the Buena Vista evictions and a city policy requiring builders to set aside 15 percent of the housing the develop for lower-income tenants – drew 200 applicants when it opened to tenants.

In addition to engaging in fact-finding to determine the scope and impacts of rising rents, the city-sponsored task force’s charge was to include recommendations detailing what if any changes the council should consider making to its rental review committee and city codes – a job those involved in the community process will now shoulder. But if things don’t work out, the council could reconsider its options.

“I hope there’s a sense of shared values between us,” Renewed Hope’s Laura Thomas said of the community stakeholder group. “There has to be a way forward, and we will find it.”


Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Wed, Sep 17, 2014

In well-intentioned San Francisco, you have the spectacle of small landlords being limited, which drives supply down and market rents up, so that large investment funds can cash-in on new construction which is excluded from rent control. It's really just wealth transfer legislation from the middle class to corporations.

Just as some people cannot afford their choice of expensive car, steak for dinner every night, expensive clothes... any item you care to name, not everyone can afford to live anywhere they'd like. That's just a fact.

If enacted in Alameda, you would see new housing developments excluded and able to charge high rents, while small landlords remove rental stock and decrease maintenance.

Trying to use the "blunt force instrument" of government to correct the market leads to a wonderland of unintended negative consequences and very little social justice.

All rent control has going for it is that it looks good on paper.

Submitted by Jim Meyer (not verified) on Wed, Sep 17, 2014

Thanks, Michele, for the excellent write-up. Having just returned from our Texas Adventure, we're in the odd spot of being both a small landlord and renters, which just amplifies the mixed feelings we have on this issue.

For us as landlords, it seems unlikely that rent control would severly hamper us significantly as we're seeking longer-term investment in good relationships with good tenants rather than maximizing income. For us, it's very much about investing in those relationships and working to balance our mutual interests with maintenance, property taxes, and mortgage. Thus far, we've been fortunate to manage this balance well without feeling the need to raise rents by twenty percent or more. At the same time, we're not fans of losing flexibility unless we can clearly show it results in strong social and economic value for our community — the law books are littered with well-intended laws and their unintended consequences.

As renters with a large family, we're certainly feeling the pinch of the current rental market. For us, there were very limited choices available in the rental market. We're now paying nearly double the mortgage payment of a comparable home, which is doubly hard as it eats into the available funds to save for the next house. It's not hard to see how frustrating it can feel, especially when you can see a road to being displaced from a community you've loved and helped to build. In the end, we choose to pay for the privilege of living in Alameda among our friends and favorite places, and we hope to work out the rest.

I'm looking forward to the forums Mr. Cambra will lead, and hoping we'll get some excellent insights from the community there. I'd love to see a real discussion of what seems to be the fundamental issue — balancing the potential for economic and social good available to us as our community's quality of life continues to grow, making us more attractive to projects like the Del Monte warehouse and Alameda Landing, and more attractive to people who want to live their lives and raise their families here.

(p.s. I'm not the Jim Meyers running for the Hospital Board, nor the pastor of the Bay Farm Community Church. I'm that other one. =)

Submitted by Richard Hausman (not verified) on Wed, Sep 17, 2014

Ah, nothing like grabbing the horns of a difficult problem! The majority of 3 simply moved the problem off their desk onto Mr. Cambra's. Passing off what is clearly their responsibility to a "community-based process" without those pesky public notices and "requirements a city task force could (sic) have to comply with" is simply spineless. And I'm sure that the majority of 3, who are the ones running for re-election or trying to unseat an incumbent, certainly didn't have their potential futures in mind when they saw the chance to avoid controversy. Kudos to Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilman Tony Daysog for taking the stand they did.

Submitted by Karen Green (not verified) on Wed, Sep 17, 2014

Richard Hausman,I am in complete agreement with you. The gang of three needs to be replaced. In addition to Stewart Chen's conviction of insurance fraud he seems to not take independent, principled stands. Our city council reminds me of the supreme court. 3-2, 5-4.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Wed, Sep 17, 2014

Thanks, Jim. And welcome home.

Submitted by David (not verified) on Wed, Sep 17, 2014

Here we go, harping on Measure A again...

"Measure A" was passed in 1973.

Just 6 years later, in 1979, the state first enacted the density bonus law, which would have provided for multifamily housing, so long as lower income housing was provided. EXACTLY what Renewed Hope (and other critics of Measure A) have demanded.

Even though the City of Alameda didn't enact a local ordinance until 2010, any developer could have applied to build housing under the density bonus law without the local ordinance - the law provides for that.

Nobody did until Francis Collins and the Boatworks project.

For the past 35 years, if any developer was serious about building multifamily housing, and building affordable housing, he or she could have applied to build through the state density bonus law, and been able to provide housing for lower income people.

From the June 2013 San Mateo Countywide Housing Element Update Kit, by 21 Elements

State density bonus law, Government Code Section 65915, was first enacted in 1979. The law requires local governments to provide density bonuses and other incentives to developers of affordable housing who commit to providing a certain percentage of dwelling units to persons whose incomes do not exceed specific thresholds. Cities also must provide bonuses to certain developers of senior housing developments, and in response to certain donations of land and the inclusion of childcare centers in some developments. Essentially, state density bonus law establishes that a residential project of five or more units that provides affordable or senior housing at specific affordability levels may be eligible for a “density bonus” to allow more dwelling units than otherwise allowed on the site by the applicable General Plan Land Use Map and Zoning.

Submitted by Alison Green (not verified) on Wed, Sep 17, 2014

I didn't come away with quite the same impression of Chen's "advocacy" as did some others. When first explaining why he believed that the "community process" would be better, Chen noted that "the community group could take its time with several meetings" and saw "no urgency" in the issue. After the emotional input of several renters and a former renter-turned-owner, Chen became a staunch believer in the power of the "community process" to start immediately, tomorrow, and accomplish the mission much more quickly than any City-sponsored Task Force full of political appointees. When the Vice Mayor questioned him on his earlier assertion of "no urgency" Chen adamantly explained something about what he really meant, because the "rent issue" part of the conversation is urgent. Or something along those lines. Towards the end of the conversation, Chen questioned the ability of his own community group leader to "get the hard data & statistics" of the rent issue in Alameda. Leading a conversation and gathering input ("qualitative data") is a very different skill set and process from collecting "data points" on the numbers ("quantitative data"). The two are not mutually exclusive, and Cambra shouldn't necessarily be expected to provide that part of the equation in order to lead a successful community conversation. Council's handling (with the exception of Ezzy Ashcraft) was a major "fail."

Submitted by old native (not verified) on Wed, Sep 17, 2014

Ah yes. As usual, the investors come first. Well fellow renters, we now have 3 choices: stay and live in abject poverty, move to Mexico, or hang ourselves. I just wonder what they'll do when there's no one left to flip their burgers for them.

Submitted by C. (not verified) on Thu, Sep 18, 2014

The big three property management companies win again. Does the City really think tenants (already feeling vulnerable to rent increases or evictions so owners can sell in this hot real estate market) are going to come forward and self-identify and "share" their experiences with Mr. Cambra? Maybe the reason why so few people make a formal complaint about their rent increases is because they are afraid to get labeled a problem tenant in this insular town. Renters don't want to be identified so they don't complain and just suck it up, accept the increases, sit back in fear of when they will be priced out of town and accept the fact that this town no longer welcomes or cares about people born and raised here who suddenly find their income can no longer compete with professionals from Silicon Valley and S.F. who have "discovered" our island. Meanwhile the real estate companies in town are thrilled. Tough luck for renters. We are the majority in this town, yet the council votes with the real estate agencies (potential donors) and the media is full of entire real estate ad sections - so it is debatable how unbiased they can be on this issue.

Submitted by Mary T (not verified) on Thu, Sep 18, 2014

I am so pleased to hear that rent control can move forward in Alameda. This issue has been troublesome for a long period of time. My brother and I used to share a great unit on Shoreline Drive owned by a family trust. Then they sold it to a small corporation around the year 2000. This group came in and kicked out tenants or tried to move them into other units using the line that the units had to be "renovated." The upgrades they put in were a joke and sometimes increasingly inferior to what was already in place. I contacted one of the local Alameda newspapers hoping they might do a feature. Although a writer came out and looked at the issue, nothing ever came of it. So, I really do hope that this issue can work out for everyone's benefit, landlords and tenants.

Submitted by Cynthia (not verified) on Fri, Sep 19, 2014

To MJ: "any item you care to name, not everyone can afford to live anywhere they'd like."

To make this note is to put your head into the sand about what's going on in the Bay Area and pretend that nothing is happening. Rents have dramatically increased -- including in Alameda -- and are pushing folks further and further away from where their jobs are.

Having folks do 2 hour plus commutes just so they can afford a place is insane. The jobs are in the Bay, but the housing is not there to support the jobs being created. We need to face reality.